Games of Strategy: Boys on Film at Tempus

Unraveling the Columbine Massacre.

Boys on Film: Works by Noelle Mason

Through Jan. 6.

Artist talk Saturday, Dec. 10 at 7 p.m.

Tempus Projects, 4636 N. Florida Ave., Tampa. tempus-projects.com.

click to enlarge Love Letters (Ready-to-wear), 12 x 12 in., hand embroidered cotton on vintage handkerchiefs, 2015 - Noelle Mason
Noelle Mason
Love Letters (Ready-to-wear), 12 x 12 in., hand embroidered cotton on vintage handkerchiefs, 2015

Whether in actual battle or in strife with mass media, strategy is a tool to play your cards right.

Our attachment to news sources via various channels that act as umbilical cords has never been as apparent as during and since this election cycle, but the use of power and control through visual media has always been a part of this culture. Created by Noelle Masonwho recently won the 2016 Florida Prize for Contemporary Art at the Orlando Museum of Art for this body of work — Boys on Film explores the fiction and fantasy created by the media in retelling the story of the Columbine High School Massacre.

Evidence after two teens planned and executed a mass execution at Columbine High in 1999 showed two teenage boys who fancied themselves not only killers but performers; they knew their names — not mentioned here — and images would get media attention. And the media delivered.

Mass shootings are always horrific, but especially so in the case of Columbine, where so much planning by two extremely disturbed boys went into its elaborate creation. Simulating the flashiness of Hollywood films or first person shooter games, the killers made use of firearms, explosives, and propane tank bombs to ensure historical immortalization.

Walking into the gallery is like stepping into the crime scene; it's devoid of any humanity except for art objects strewn throughout the room like remnants of personal memorabilia. Vibrant color is stripped from the works, leaving only the solemnity of whites, grays, and blacks.

Lined along the left-hand wall are a series of large drawings, “CCTV (the Basement Tapes),” which are the case reports from Columbine blown up in scale. Instead of machine printing the documents, each letter, box, and signature is hand-drawn by Mason. The quiet, painstaking labor involved in this process when easier methods could be used speaks about the slow registering and processing of not only the facts but the aftermath of this tragedy, while also referencing the meticulous brewing of the boys’ master plan.

“The ‘Basement Tapes’ serve as a kind of ‘behind the scenes extras’ for the massacre, something that had become just as popular as part of a DVD box set. Another work in the show, a Sony mini-DV camera that has been crystallized also refers to their creative production as it includes of DV tape that reads ‘Hitmen for Hire,’ a movie they made of themselves which foreshadows not only the massacre, but also the many films that would be made about them in the aftermath,” Mason explains. 

“Eye Without a Face/Positive Feedback” is said 8 mm camera, coated in borax as if to freeze it in time to preserve precious evidence, and laying on the floor tucked in a corner by the front door. Many of the sculptures seem to be hiding in plain sight, indirectly asking about the boys’ plot: How did you not see this coming?

“Love Letters (Ready-to-wear)” also foreshadows Columbine in Mason’s small selection of a much larger series of 200 hand-embroidered drawings that were taken from one of the killers' journals and carefully stitched on vintage handkerchiefs. These particular drawings focus on their outfitting/costuming for the job: cross-body holsters and cargo pants with enough pockets to hold their ammo and knives. Mason effectively counters the hardness of these disturbing drawings with the softness of the handkerchiefs, but these heirlooms aren’t nearly enough to mop up all of the blood and tears that were shed.

“The Killer in me is the Killer in You” is something of an iconic piece: Two school desks coated in fire extinguisher dust are set facing one another. A propane tank is duct taped ominously at the bottom of each desk to fuel the twin fires that burn on the desktops’ right-hand corners. The flames seem to salute each as if sealing their murderous pact, but they also act equally as an eternal flame like those at placed at grave memorials usually done in honor for those who have died in warfare or other tragedy. Here, instead of honoring the victims, it seems like a media monument to the boys and their destruction, which will remain forever etched into history.

Precariously navigating the room, you are obliged to back up to look at the drawings from a distance while trying to avoid bumping into flames or stepping on art. Viewers are somewhat forced to choose what to look at, fact or fiction: the “writing on the wall” or the captivating flame — in part relating to the spectacle the media stoked.

Simmering over the mental images of the exhibition the next day, the two tables stood out the most. This says a lot about the power of spectacle and brings up the question of how the news sources should approach coverage of massacres: should names and faces of murderers be plastered all over TV screens or simply ignored altogether? The problem is that the media loves a good story, no matter how horrific, and these boys used that fact as strategy for their endgame.

Caitlin Albritton, CL Tampa's visual arts critic, spends her time tracking down art you might not see anywhere else. She's also an artist in her own right. Follow her on Instagram or read her blog.


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